A Leadership Journey Inspired by Reform Jewish Women

March 10, 2023Rabbi Marla J. Feldman

As I prepare to retire from my position as executive director of Women of Reform Judaism (WRJ), I have been reflecting on my professional journey. While there have been many friends and colleagues along the way, my most constant companions have been Reform Jewish women from our vibrant sisterhoods close to home and around the world. They paved the road before me, supported me, had my back, propelled me forward, and walked beside me along the way.

WRJ is the woman's affiliate of the URJ. We are a global organization with hundreds of affiliated women's groups ("sisterhoods") in North America. WRJ cultivates sisterhood by empowering Reform Jewish women to find strength, joy, and connection in their communities, while enriching contemporary life with Jewish rituals, traditions, culture, and lifelong learning. WRJ also mobilizes collective action on a variety of causes to create a more just and compassionate world for people of all backgrounds and identities.

Growing up in an engaged Reform family, my love of Judaism was nurtured by my family and the religious school experiences provided by sisterhood women like my mother: Hanukkah celebrations, Purim carnivals, Passover seders, and the ritual moments of consecration and confirmation all contributed to my connection to heritage. Perhaps most formative were my youth group experiences and life-altering summer Israel experience, made possible by sisterhood scholarships.

Fast-forward to rabbinical school, I was one of hundreds of rabbinical students to receive a WRJ YES Fund scholarship. During my WRJ-subsidized student years, I worked as a regional director for NFTY - also funded in part by WRJ. In that role, I chaperoned the first NFTY Convention in 1983 (also partially funded by WRJ!), where I met Rabbi David Saperstein and learned about the critical work of the Religious Action Center (RAC) of Reform Judaism. Within months, I found myself in D.C. as a RAC summer legislative assistant. You guessed it… the RAC annually receives a WRJ YES Fund grant for this program. Shortly thereafter, I became the first Hebrew Union College student to serve on the Commission on Social Action.

Through the Commission on Social Action, I worked with inspiring WRJ leaders who taught me the power of engaged women working towards the shared goals of justice and equality. Those connections led me to an internship with WRJ (then National Federation of Temple Sisterhood, or NFTS), where I worked on social justice issues that impacted women and children. I was blessed to work with and learn from true trailblazers; Jewish women, both volunteers and professionals, who carved a leadership path for women in the Reform Movement long before there were women serving as rabbis and cantors. Jane Evans, the first executive director of WRJ, was an inventor, navigator, peace activist, founder of the UN's NGO network, and passionate proponent of women's ordination - a true Renaissance woman. Her successor, Ellie Schwartz, was a founder of NFTY and a wonderful mentor during my internship.

Inspired by these experiences, I knew I could turn to sisterhood women for support when I was a newly-minted rabbi serving communities in Florida. Indeed, their wisdom proved invaluable. They made sure I would succeed in a challenging environment where I was the first and only woman rabbi. They helped me avoid rookie mistakes and had my back when, despite their efforts, I occasionally made them. They were my friends and confidants in communities where I had no family or colleagues to rely on.

Later, as a Jewish community relations professional in Delaware and Detroit, women were my willing partners for community initiatives. Together, we launched literacy programs, interfaith dialogue groups, and advocacy initiatives to protect church-state separation and advance women's rights.

Returning to the URJ as the Director of the Commission on Social Action, I knew I could count on women to jump in whenever I needed them. Whether it was advocacy for social justice, hands-on mitzvah corps programs, or raising funds for disaster relief efforts, they were always ready to help. Later, as the URJ Director of Development, I again turned to the visionaries of WRJ and the YES Fund to support programs like the NFTY Mitzvah Corps, Youth Engagement Campaign, and PJ Library.

Now I'm blessed to work with today's inspiring WRJ leaders to fulfill our mission to "strengthen the voice of women worldwide and empower them to create caring communities, nurture congregations, cultivate personal and spiritual growth, and advocate for and promote progressive Jewish values." WRJ strengthened my voice and empowered me with the skills and experiences that helped me become the leader I am toda.

I'm thrilled to pass the baton to my successor, Rabbi Liz P.G. Hirsch, who benefited from many of the same WRJ-funded opportunities: URJ camps, NFTY, a RAC fellowship, and a YES Fund rabbinical school scholarship. Under her leadership, WRJ will continue to lay the foundation for our future leaders. I know that Jewish women will be by her side, just as they have always been there for me.

I'm so proud to be part of this Reform network of empowered women, just like my mother and all those sisterhood women before me. I can think of no better way to mark Women's History Month than by acknowledging the impact of the women who have paved the road before me and shepherded me along the journey. To all of them, I say: THANK YOU!

Women of Reform Judaism is honoring Rabbi Marla J. Feldman at a celebratory dinner on Thursday, April 20, 2023, in Chicago, IL. All proceeds from this event will benefit WRJ's Rabbi Marla J. Feldman Social Justice Fund. For more information about the event and opportunities to honor her, please visit our website.

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